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Saddam Hussein's trial was meant to be a symbol of a new democratic Iraq

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Twenty years ago, many Americans thought of one man when they heard the word Iraq, and that was Saddam Hussein. The White House said he had weapons of mass destruction. He didn't, though he had used them against his own people years earlier. When the U.S invaded Iraq two decades ago this week, it captured Saddam and set up a trial that was supposed to exemplify justice. NPR's Deborah Amos reports on how it went wrong.

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PAUL BREMER: Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.

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DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: December 2003. Saddam Hussein is dragged out of a hole in the ground near Tikrit, his hometown. Regime change is a rationale for the U.S. invasion.

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RICARDO SANCHEZ: This is Saddam as he was being given his medical examination today.

AMOS: In Baghdad, American officials announced Saddam's capture. As important - an announcement that Saddam would face justice in an impartial Iraqi court, a step towards the rule of law, as Washington promised, creating a new democratic Iraq, a flawed project from the start, says political analyst Hussein Ibish.

HUSSEIN IBISH: I don't think it's possible to understand the willingness of so many people to go along with the fantasy of reconstructing Iraq without the anger of 9/11, the sense that we have to do something really big in the Islamic and in the Arab world, and this is something.

AMOS: At the CIA, intelligence officer Emile Nakhle, a Middle East specialist, was alarmed by the growing chaos. He had warned the White House in his briefings.

EMILE NAKHLE: In the end, they did not listen, really. They had planned to go to war way back, right after 9/11. You know, we are the superpower, the only superpower. Of course, we can remove Saddam with no problem. Except there was because we did not think about Monday morning.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: The trial of Saddam Hussein opened today in Baghdad.

AMOS: That chaos was the backdrop for Saddam's trial two years after his regime was toppled, seeping into the judicial process that was supposed to be a model. Iraq had become a volatile mix of violence, a growing insurgency hostile to the U.S., a brewing sectarian war. The grievances of Iraq's Sunnis, Shias and Kurds played out in the Iraqi courtroom.

FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI: Saddam wasn't supposed to be a defendant in that trial.

AMOS: The plan was to start with lower-level officials, says Feisal Istrabadi, Iraq's first U.N. ambassador after the invasion.

ISTRABADI: This was supposed to be a practice run for the judges because they were applying international law for the first time. You know, trying a murder case is not the same as trying a mass murder case.

AMOS: But Iraq's Shia Muslim leaders were in a hurry, he says. They demanded the trial start with a mass murder indictment of 148 Shia men in the town of Dujail.

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MONTAGNE: The former Iraqi dictator faces charges of crimes against humanity for ordering a mass killing of Shiite men in 1982.

AMOS: Bill Wiley, a Canadian war crimes investigator, was observing the trial for United Nations when American officials tapped him to be an adviser to Saddam's defense team. It was a last-ditch move to make this a legitimate trial with a credible defense.

BILL WILEY: Because the defense lawyers were generally pretty bad. I ended up writing a lot of the defenses for Saddam and the other accused.

AMOS: Still, the evidence was overwhelming, direct orders signed by Saddam presented in court. The verdict guilty, with more indictments to come - a genocide charge for gassing an entire town of Kurds in the 1980s, dropping chemical weapons from helicopters, then the murder of 90 members of the Dulaim tribe, all Sunni Muslims. But instead of an orderly court process, the Shia-led government seemed intent on revenge rather than justice. Over the objections of the U.S., then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rushed the execution of Saddam Hussein.

ISTRABADI: We have some new tape in of the execution of Saddam Hussein, which has voice.

AMOS: The headline Istrabadi heard waiting to be interviewed in a CNN studio in New York - Saddam's execution video had been leaked.

ISTRABADI: I was a sitting ambassador when he was hanged. My job is to defend my government.

AMOS: The images were shocking. Saddam stands on the hanging platform. He is mocked and insulted by a motley crew of Iraqi witnesses.

ISTRABADI: He looks down on them. He's literally got the noose around his neck, and in Arabic, he said, (speaking Arabic). Is this manhood? I'm watching it live, and I made a decision. I would not defend this.

AMOS: The this in this shaky video - the deeply sectarian priorities of the new Iraqi government.

ISTRABADI: What I said was, this does not look like the state executing just punishment, and Saddam Hussein's victims deserved a more dignified proceeding than this.

AMOS: The proceedings were widely condemned, Saddam's last moments celebrated in some quarters. The images added fuel to the fire of Iraq's sectarian civil war, says Bill Wiley.

WILEY: And you've got guys chanting and having a party there with the body. It was seen as a utter debacle.

ISTRABADI: So it looks like a Shia government taking revenge on behalf of the Shia.

AMOS: Feisal al-Istrabadi heads a Middle East studies center at Indiana University. He now teaches the lessons of the U.S. invasion. Bill Wiley heads CIJA, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, providing documents and expertise in Syrian war crimes trials in Europe. Now he's working on Ukraine.

WILEY: We're working with the Ukrainians because they asked for our help. They have gathered immense, immense, immense amounts of material from the battlefield.

AMOS: For Wiley, even though Saddam's trial went badly, the lessons learned in Iraq informed his approach to Syria, how to manage a mass of evidence, how to build a complex war crimes case and, important to share with Ukraine, how to go up the chain of command and indict the leaders who gave the orders.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.